I’d been looking forward to this group hike all season: a loop starting near Armstrong Pass and summiting Job’s Peak, Job’s Sister, and Freel Peak – the 4th, 2nd, and tallest peaks in the Lake Tahoe area – and returning via the Tahoe Rim Trail to Armstrong Pass and a connector trail to the trailhead. The loop length was estimated at 12 miles. Usually a 12-mile hike is a comfortable distance for me, but this was not your typical 12-mile hike, even for the Tahoe area. The announcement e-mail stated that the hike “is not for the unfit, the unadventurous, or those who are not acclimatized to altitude.” This was good advice: over 75% of the vertical gain and loss – and hike time – took place in just half of the distance, with an average grade of 20%, and was almost entirely above 9500 feet elevation.
Reaching the trailhead requires a vehicle with high clearance to negotiate Willow Creek Road, signed as forest road 051, about a half mile east of Luther Pass on CA-89. The trailhead is about 3.9 miles up the forest road, and is the trailhead for a connector trail to the Tahoe Rim Trail at Armstrong Pass. The route goes through parts of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and the Eldorado National Forest. The trailhead is near the Willow Creek label on the GPS track.
The route continues up the forest road for about 1.2 miles, where an obvious trail departs and the climb starts in earnest.
The trail climbs quite steeply, with an average grade of about 20% and a thick layer of decomposed granite. This material was surprisingly difficult to walk on and made the steep climb especially challenging and strenuous: I barely averaged 1 mph. The trail goes almost directly to Job’s Peak. About 1.5 miles up the trail one of the other hikers and I got a little confused by some information radioed to us by our companions, who had already summited Job’s Peak, and we actually summited a nearby, slightly lower, peak: only about 10,465 feet instead of 10,633 feet. This also made our loop about a mile shorter than it would have been if we had actually gone to Job’s Peak. As we waited for the rest of the group before starting the traverse to Job’s Sister, we were startled to notice a glider being dropped off by a small plane. For the next several minutes we watched the glider swoop around Job’s Peak, up and back in the trough between Job’s Peak and Job’s Sister, losing altitude and then circling to climb again. Here the glider is just to the left of Job’s Peak, about to circle behind.
At one point the glider came directly toward us and swooped barely 100 feet overhead, apparently checking us out before continuing its tour of the area. It was a spectacular day for a glider ride.
After rejoining the rest of the group we set out for Job’s Sister. We could see that this section would be the most difficult of the hike, with a substantial descent before another steep climb.
We followed an informal “use trail,” hoping to lose as little elevation as possible; the descent turned out to be about 500 feet, which we then had to re-gain. The slope of Job’s Sister is even steeper than Job’s Peak, around 30% grade where we started to climb and gaining even more steepness with elevation. It certainly seemed like the devil’s staircase at the time. After struggling up just 350 feet or so, we abandoned such a direct route, traversing across an area without vegetation before heading up again, this time at more of an angle. (Note: my camera was not tilted when I took this picture!)
After the traverse, the strategy was to angle over toward the saddle between Job’s Sister and Freel Peak, in order to lessen the slope to something more manageable like 20% grade. The footing was so difficult that I found myself focusing on the ground right in front of my feet, looking for a relatively secure place to take a short step, then bring my other foot alongside instead of actually stepping forward. My main objective became to not slide downhill when taking a step, though it was not always possible. The climb from the trough between Job’s Peak and Job’s Sister to the summit of Job’s Sister was only about 0.9 mile, but it took an hour and a half. It was hard work!
The views from Job’s Sister were the fantastic reward for the strenuous climb: the devil’s staircase had become the staircase to heaven. Here is a beautiful view of Lake Tahoe, with Star Lake, at 9000 feet elevation, in the foreground.
The Carson Valley was hazy but visible 6000 feet below, showing how abrupt drop-off is at the eastern edge of the Sierras.
Next was the traverse from Job’s Sister to Freel Peak. This was another steep descent followed by a nearly flat section and a final climb. The informal trail is easy to see in the picture. The entire traverse is about 1.1 mile and took 50 minutes.
Since Freel Peak is the tallest peak in the Lake Tahoe region, being at the summit was like being at the top of the world. From Freel Peak we could look back toward Job’s Sister and Job’s Peak; the lesser summit I climbed instead of Job’s Peak is at the right edge of the picture.
The weather was perfect to be on a mountaintop: besides mostly clear skies, there was no wind! Once again we had a wonderful panoramic view of Lake Tahoe.
In the foreground of the picture you may notice a ground squirrel perched on a rock, apparently surveying the view like a king of the mountain. We dubbed it “cute little guy” and were quite amused to watch it come close to pick up a piece of banana bread, then run over to the rock to eat.
There is a peak register at the top of Freel Peak. One member of our group signed all of us in and noted our summits.
There was a lovely view of the southern Carson Range looking south. I think the prominent pointy peak to the left may be Hawkins Peak.
There is a fairly well-used use path from Freel Peak to the Tahoe Rim Trail. However, we presumably missed a switchback and ended up off-trail, coming more or less straight down the slope for the last 500 feet of elevation loss (note the nearly vertical section at about mile 6.7 on the elevation profile). This was very steep – about 37% grade! – and slippery, so it was challenging after all of the climbing.
After reaching the Tahoe Rim Trail the hiking became much easier, as expected, and it was kind of a cruise back down to Armstrong Pass and the connector trail to our trailhead.
During the hike I found I needed to concentrate on safely making forward progress, and that evening and the following day I discovered a few leg muscles I didn’t realize I have. But the pictures reinforced memories of the wonderful views, and these memories will last much longer than any sore muscles.